Adjectives that come to mind for your typical summer concert: fun, friendly, safe. Would any of those have fit last night’s Hollywood Bowl program? “Fun” absolutely works; maybe “friendly”. But “safe”? The centerpiece of the program – Alberto Ginastera’s wild Piano Concerto no. 1 – was anything but that. Try “daring”. Or even “dangerous”.

Sergio Tiempo © Sussie Ahlburg
Sergio Tiempo
© Sussie Ahlburg

“Dangerous” because choosing a thirty-minute work composed in the much (and unjustly) maligned twelve-tone method as the program’s pivot should have sent those with weaker sensibilities scrambling for the exits. No doubt more than a few were squirming in their seats. But the exodus never came. Instead a tumultuous – and well-deserved – standing ovation met the volcanic performance by pianist Sergio Tiempo and the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel. 

The concerto, a four-movement work from 1961, has nothing to do with the dryness, severity, or sheer ugliness that embodies the twelve-tone music stereotype. This is music that is vibrant, bold, passionate, and utterly compelling. Intricately virtuosic writing for the piano blend with kaleidoscopic orchestration in a work that sounded a perfect fit for Tiempo and Dudamel. 

Tiempo effortlessly glided along the music’s knife-edge of abandon and control. Power was judiciously kept reined in when needed, like in the concerto’s eerie light-show of a scherzo – marked “hallucinatory” in the score – where Tiempo’s coruscating virtuosity was made all the more evident in this fascinating study in pianissimo sonorities. At the “Toccata concertata” finale, with its pounding, alternating rhythms, Tiempo finally unleashed the full force of his pianistic arsenal, leaving his listeners in a breathless daze.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel were every bit Tiempo’s equal. Of single mind with his soloist, Dudamel drew from the orchestra playing of total commitment that wallowed in Ginastera’s riot of colors. Not even in his dreams could the composer have imagined an orchestral realization so perfect. The work of concertmaster Martin Chalifour, principal trumpet Donald Green, and principal timpanist Joseph Pereira was especially crucial to the performance’s success.

Anything else fated to follow the Ginastera had an unenviable task. Because whatever came next was sure to pale in comparison. Aaron Copland’s stodgy Symphony no. 3 arrived like a cold shower after the heady ecstasy of the Ginastera. The symphony takes the best aspects of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, then dilutes them thoroughly; call it “Socialist Realism for Dummies.” It was to the orchestra’s and Dudamel’s credit that they wrested from this score a performance of gripping strength; almost convincing that there may be more to the music beyond propagandistic bombast. Especially attractive was their way with the third movement’s Andantino quasi allegretto; the velvety Los Angeles Philharmonic strings soaring aloft gracefully in the opening measures.

It was Dudamel’s fellow countryman, Venezuelan composer Juan Carlos Núñez, that opened up Thursday’s concert. His 1973 Symphonic Toccata no. 1 holding a special place in Dudamel’s affections, being that it was the first piece he ever played with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra. Lasting just over six minutes, Núñez’s work was an attractive curtain-raiser. Driving, syncopated rhythms hold sway. A brief fugato leads into a dreamy, slow central section reminiscent of Silvestre Revueltas in contemplative mood, which is followed by a brilliant tutti coda.

After the conservative programming of the past few weeks, last night was a welcome breath of fresh air. If only every summer could be like that.